Vets know guns and gunfights better than most of us. Guns are a big part of their identity. So why have so many stepped up to speak out in favor of gun safety and gun reform?
Note: This season of American Diagnosis was originally published under the title In Sickness & In Health.
Celine Gounder: Happy New Year, everyone! I’m Dr. Celine Gounder, the host of “In Sickness and in Health.”
Celine Gounder: Since our last episode came out, there’s been some big news. The federal budget passed in December includes $25 million for gun violence research. In the first episode of this season, we told the story of the Dickey Amendment. That’s the law that… until now… has made it almost impossible for the CDC and NIH to study gun violence as a public health problem.
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Celine Gounder: Thanks for listening. Now here’s the show!
Peter Lucier: When you’re shooting back at people that are shooting at you with these high-powered, rapid-fire assault weapons, you learn how powerful they are…
Kyleanne Hunter: …when we are bringing a war zone to high schools, that’s not protecting the life and liberty of Americans.
Joe Plenzler: We as combat veterans saying, “Hey, if we could do something to reduce the level of gun violence in America.” I would hope people would listen.
Celine Gounder: Welcome back to “In Sickness and in Health,” a podcast about health and social justice. I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This season we’re looking at gun violence in America.
Peter Lucier: So, for the record, I enlisted in the Marine Corps. My boot camp ship date was October 20th, 2008. I exited October,19th, 2013.
Celine Gounder: This is Pete Lucier. Pete grew up between St. Louis and Dallas in a military family… a family that valued service, learning, and self-reliance.
Peter Lucier: There is a tradition of service in my family. My father’s brother, my uncle, was at Green Beret and Vietnam. Three of my four grandparents served in World War II, including my grandmother on my father’s side, was women’s air service pilot.
Celine Gounder: Pete followed his brother into the Marine Corps right out of high school. He was idealistic and loved his country.
Peter Lucier: Not necessarily starting from the Star-spangled banner patriotism. Not American flag t-shirts, but having a really deep connection to holiness of place and a really love for the landscape and history of our country, and being idealistic and wanting to see if the things that I believed about humanity and about morality and about the world could hold up at the sharp end of American foreign policy.
Celine Gounder: Pete threw himself into the Marine lifestyle. He trained with guns, got in shape, studied counter-insurgency… but what he really wanted was a chance to prove himself in battle.
Peter Lucier: You have to get shot at, you have to shoot back. You have to have firefights under your belt. That’s what it means to be confirmed in that sacrament and to be a full member of that tribe.
Celine Gounder: Pete was a strong supporter of concealed carry. He had the training, had a pistol, and a concealed carry license… he was a good guy with a gun.
Peter Lucier: And I thought that “Oh, maybe I can be the one who makes a difference. I can be the guy who can save someone’s life.”
Peter Lucier: It makes you feel empowered and safe. It did for me. I don’t want to talk about anyone else’s experiences, but it made me feel elevated… that I have this grave responsibility of not just serving on the frontlines as a Marine, but as a civilian, I can go out there and be a guardian and a protector as well.
Celine Gounder: After three years, Pete finally got the combat deployment he wanted so badly.
Peter Lucier: So there I am. This is it. This is the moment where I have, finally, have the opportunity to prove myself and do that.
Celine Gounder: But when Pete experienced war, a lot changed. He remembers one moment in Iraq:
Peter Lucier: I had the Staff Sergeant yelling in my ear… to shoot this guy… and I hesitated for a moment… not 100% sure why.
Celine Gounder: When he had the chance to kill someone… Pete didn’t take the shot.
Peter Lucier: I’d like to say that I wasn’t sure, and I wanted to be making good choices, but the truth is, I might have been too cowardly to do it.
Peter Lucier: And the next time that guy appears he’s shielding this woman and child with his body. I assume it was his wife and his son, and he’s just trying to get out of the way of these A10 gun runs that we were calling in.
Celine Gounder: And his ideas about good guys with guns changed, too.
Peter Lucier: I think what changed for me, part of it at least, was my deployment to Afghanistan. I think I saw that the chaotic nature of gunfights, makes making a difference incredibly difficult. And it’s difficult for a squad of Marines who are trained together, and who can move in perfect unison, and who have a wide variety of firearms, and a lot of the things at their disposal, it can still be difficult for them to achieve what they want to achieve. So, just on a practical level, I wondered, “Is it realistic for me to think about trying to make a difference in a violent encounter if I’m armed or not?”
Peter Lucier: That was just a personal experience and journey, for me, and so I decided to stop. I don’t carry weapons anymore, and I thought there’s other ways that I can be of practical use if I ever find myself in that situation.
Celine Gounder: Veterans have a unique place in American society. They take an oath to protect the Constitution. They risk their lives in service to their country. And when it comes to guns, there are few who know more than they do.
Celine Gounder: In this episode, we’ll hear from veterans like Pete whose opinions about guns were shaped by their military service … and how they’re using their voices in support of gun reform.
Peter Lucier: Pete Lucier. I’m a Marine Corps veteran.
Joe Plenzler: My name is Joe Plenzler. I’m a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, and a combat veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Steven Kiernan: I’m Steven Kiernan. I’m a former Marine.
Kyleanne Hunter: My name is Kyleanne Hunter and… I’ve had multiple combat deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan flying the super cobra helicopter.
Kyle Hausmann Stokes: My name is Kyle Hausmann Stokes… I’m a combat veteran of Iraq.
Celine Gounder: We’ll hear why they joined the military… and why they see their advocacy for gun violence prevention back home… as a continuation of their service overseas.
Celine Gounder: This week on “In Sickness and in Health”… veterans and gun reform.
Joe Plenzler: This is a little bit funny. I joined the military because I didn’t really trust my government.
Celine Gounder: This is Joe Plenzler. As a young man, Joe was really interested in the Founding Fathers. Especially James Madison. Madison was worried about how an army could be used against the very people it was supposed to protect.
Joe Plenzler: I sat down one day and really thought about it and said, if I really believe these things, then I probably ought to join the military, because the military needs clear-thinking people to serve, so that when orders are given and policies put into action, then we could have people with good morals and values and clear-thinking heads to direct the application of military force.
Celine Gounder: Joe grew up hunting with family where he grew up in Ohio.
Celine Gounder: How were guns stored in your home? do you remember, growing up?
Joe Plenzler: Yes, actually. Poorly. My dad had them in the basement, and we were taught not to touch them if he wasn’t around, but when I look back on it, we could have done a much better job when I was a kid. They’re just kept down in the basement, and the ammunition was kept up on a tall shelf.
Celine Gounder: But when Joe joined the Marines, he had a very different experience with safe storage and gun safety.
Joe Plenzler: The first thing you hear coming out of a firearms instructors’ mouth in the Marine Corps is, “Safety is paramount.”
Joe Plenzler: We go through a full week of training before we even allow our Marines to put live ammunition in there.
Celine Gounder: Joe says there’s a lot of misconceptions about how guns are handled and stored in the military.
Joe Plenzler: There’s a set protocol. The weapons are unloaded until you get to the range. You don’t load them up until you get on the firing line. Once you complete that round of fire, you unload it, show clear, and then before you leave the range, somebody checks through to make sure that you don’t have a hot weapon, or that you don’t have any ammunition on you as you go back to the barracks. Once you get back there, you clear ’em, and you clean ’em, and then you store ’em in a locked armory, typically.
Joe Plenzler: I don’t see the same level of diligence when I go out to civilian ranges. It’s disappointing.
Celine Gounder: But while Joe had a strict safety culture in the Marines… it took him a while to come around to safe storage with his own guns at home.
Joe Plenzler: To be honest with you, in my adult life, it was not until 2006 that my wife was like, “Hey, you need to get a gun safe.” I kind of pushed back on her a little bit. She’s a Marine Corps veteran as well. She’s like, “No, seriously.” She’s like, “You think about what would happen if somebody stole those. How would you feel?” That’s all she needed to say. I called and got a gun safe the next day.
Celine Gounder: Joe’s wife also convinced him not to get an AR-15. It came down to having a defensive or offensive weapon. Joe thinks pistols and shotguns make better defensive weapons… especially when you’re defending your home.
Joe Plenzler: Gun owners will go into all sorts of esoteric conversations about this, but the bottom line is, in close quarters, the typical scenario, there’s a home invasion or there’s somebody banging on your front door at two in the morning, when you’re disoriented, it’s dark and the situation is unclear, typically, a 12-gauge shotgun is about the best weapon that you can have in that situation.
Celine Gounder: Compare that with an AR-15, the civilian version of the M16 many Marines train on.
Joe Plenzler: An assault rifle with a 30-round magazine, with high-velocity boards in a really tight environment that’s your home, it’s just a ridiculous thing. A ridiculous proposition, in my estimation.
Celine Gounder: And the bullets used in a rifle like an AR-15… they’re made for something more than home defense.
Joe Plenzler: When you look at the .223 round or the 5.56 round that’s associated with the AR-15 or the M16, those are high velocity rounds that are designed to hit, tumble, spin, and cause pretty grievous wounds from cavitation.
Celine Gounder: The next veteran we’ll hear from, Steven Kiernan, can attest to that.
Steven Kiernan: All right. I’m Steven Kiernan. I’m a former Marine. I served from 2005 to 2010.
Celine Gounder: Growing up, Steven didn’t have guns in the house. But he was always interested in them.
Steven Kiernan: I’d always a fascination with them, as a kid they were cool. They made these big sounds, and they made you feel real powerful when you would shoot them.
Steven Kiernan: It wasn’t until I got in the Marine Corps when I really learned about weapons, how to handle them, how to use them, how to shoot them.
Celine Gounder: Like Pete, Steven says he was a patriotic kid. He supported the Iraq War. But he was looking for something else…
Steven Kiernan: Growing up, like in junior high or high school, I was never a big, tough kid. I played football but for a couple of years until I broke my collar bone, and then I quit. I was never super popular or anything like that, so I guess I felt the need to want to prove myself. How do you prove you’re big and tough? The ultimate thing is graduating Marine Corps boot camp.
Celine Gounder: Steven joined right out of high school. The Marines had a big impact on him.
Steven Kiernan: The first couple of years I was in the Marines, it was really a boost in my physical fitness, a boost in my confidence.
Steven Kiernan: And I became a lot more confident in the things I did, a lot more self disciplined and motivated.
Celine Gounder: But when Steven was deployed, tragedy struck. One day he was hit with an IED. The explosion nearly killed him. He had to have both his legs amputated. Steven went back to the U.S. to recover at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Steven Kiernan: Being in a hospital at Walter Reed, I knew lots of people with gunshot wounds. I saw the aftermath of what they look like.
Steven Kiernan: So you really see just how bad what bullets and rifles can do to you.
Celine Gounder: I think that’s an important point, too, because we tend to focus on the people who die from gunshot wounds, whether it’s fighting overseas or here in this country. We don’t really think about all the people who do survive and what their life is like afterwards.
Steven Kiernan: Yeah, and it’s… movies and television, they really don’t do them justice. Because you watch a movie, someone gets shot… they shake it off and keep doing whatever hero thing they were doing. In reality, bullet wounds, especially from assault rifles like AK47s or AR15s or whatever, you get shot in the leg or the arm, you could lose your whole limb because it just smashes the bones, tendons, rips all of the muscle and meat. They’re pretty nasty stuff.
Steven Kiernan: I’ve seen guys where they were shot in the thigh, and they had a fairly small hole in the front, but in the back, it’s like their entire back of their thigh was just a big gaping wound from where it exited out of the back of them.
Steven Kiernan: I knew guys who had bullet wounds or shrapnel wounds in the abdomen, and they had a colostomy bag for six months to a year. … I never really could comprehend the gravity of what these wounds were like until I was faced with it every day.
Celine Gounder: Seeing the human cost of the war around him at the hospital and… later… adjusting to life as a double-amputee at home took its toll on Steven. PTSD… depression… and wondering… was it worth it?
Steven Kiernan: You see everyone when you get home from Iraq or Afghanistan, and it’s a big deal to you, but it’s not a big deal to them. No one seems to be aware of what’s going on. Eventually you — me, myself — began to feel the same way where I was apathetic about pretty much anything.
Steven Kiernan: It’s this mix of apathy and trauma.
Celine Gounder: A mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017 killed fifty-nine people and injured another 869. It made Steven feel even more hopeless.
Steven Kiernan: A friend of mine was in Las Vegas when that massacre happened… I was trying to contact him. I couldn’t get a hold of him.
Celine Gounder: Finally, Steven heard back from his friend. He was OK.
Steven Kiernan: He was one of my Marines, and he was wounded with me in Iraq and just to think, he survives that, just almost get gunned down by some dude with a fully automatic assault rifle back home, that’s just insane to me, and how willingly we just accept that as a normal in our own country is, I just find that particularly appalling.
Celine Gounder: But when the Parkland shooting happened in 2018, Steven’s apathy and frustration shifted into advocacy. Steven attended the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. to support gun reform.
Steven Kiernan: To see these young 17-18-year-old kids step up… and to not take no for an answer and to not accept the status quo… That made me feel really good, not just as Americans… Their motivation to want to come out and make change and get people out to vote and actually do something, really motivated me to finally come out and participate in some activism myself. … So that was one of the reasons I wanted to get out there and show my support for them and have their back and back them up.
Celine Gounder: Steven wasn’t the only veteran to speak out for the Parkland survivors. Pete Lucier and Joe Plenzler wrote an op-ed that ran in the Washington Post in support of the students. The other author of that op-ed was a decorated combat helicopter pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kyleanne Hunter.
Kyleanne Hunter: I ended up being a Cobra pilot. I flew the AH 1 Whiskey Super Cobra attack helicopter… so guns and rockets and missiles…
Celine Gounder: One of the main points of the op-ed was to amplify the voices of the Parkland students.
Kyleanne Hunter: If you’re old enough to get killed in school, you should be listened to about it.
Kyleanne Hunter: I mean, they’re the ones who are getting affected by this the most. On the other side of that is that we want to offer a place of solace for them. We know what it’s like to lose friends. We know what it’s like to be terrified of noises, of smells, of sounds, of places, and that if there’s anything we can do to help facilitate their healing and help facilitate conversations, we’re here for them.
Celine Gounder: The Washington Post op-ed also announced a social media campaign called #Vets4GunReform.
Kyleanne Hunter: Most importantly, we believe in facilitating conversations around why people own guns and what guns actually are. That’s where one of the biggest things I think that we can be an advocate for, because when you have honest conversations around people about why they own guns, what guns are, what guns are actually intended to do? You’re more likely to see people want common sense legislation around them.
Celine Gounder: Kyleanne has lost friends in combat. She’s lost friends and fellow veterans to gun-related suicide. Kyleanne says there’s a lot of issues at play… but in the end…. it always comes down to the gun.
Kyleanne Hunter: Access to guns is what was the result of friends of mine burying their three-year-old child, because he was off duty police officer. He just had his gun in his center console of the car. Two kids were left in the car while he ran inside to grab pizza, and of course, they’re going to be curious and they play.
Kyleanne Hunter: Too often in this country, we try to blame everything but the guns, but the one, the one constant, the one consistency is that easy access to weapons.
Kyleanne Hunter: I think more importantly than easy access to weapons, the cavalier attitude that Americans have it when talking about weapons, is responsible for a lot of unnecessary and preventable death.
Celine Gounder: Kyleanne, Joe, and Pete agree that there’s a lot civilian gun culture can learn from the military.
Kyleanne Hunter: In the Marine Corps, honor, courage, and commitment is all about putting yourself after others, about honoring your commitment to this country and these ideals. The gun culture is all about my right to own a gun at all cost. And it doesn’t matter what happens to anybody else.
Celine Gounder: Kyleanne thinks that mass shootings shouldn’t have to be the price of the Second Amendment.
Kyleanne Hunter: I refuse to think that that’s an American value that I fought for, that myself and so many of my sisters and brothers in arms sacrificed for, to say, maybe we just need to, kids just have to die
Celine Gounder: Joe Plenzler agrees.
Joe Plenzler: True freedom is not being able to walk around everywhere you go with a loaded weapon. True freedom is being able to walk around everywhere you go in public without needing one. Both Ky… and I had been to places and countries that literally are coming apart at the seams where you did need to carry loaded weapons with you everywhere you went for your own physical safety. … I’ll tell you, it’s a real unpleasant experience to live for a prolonged period of time in a place like that. It’s a joy to come back to the United States where, in most places, you don’t feel compelled to carry a gun with you when you go out in public. That’s a gift, and that’s something that we should strive to retain within the United States.
Celine Gounder: After the Parkland shooting, #VetsforGunReform put out a public message from veterans calling for change.
Kyle Hausmann-Stokes: My name is Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, I’m a filmmaker based in Los Angeles. I’m a combat veteran of Iraq. I was in the army for five years. I served in the infantry.
Celine Gounder: Kyle’s PSA showed veterans from every branch of the military calling for gun violence prevention. The PSA opens with a veteran standing in a movie-set version of an Iraqi village.
Celine Gounder: When he put the call out for volunteers, the response was overwhelming.
Kyle Hausmann-Stokes: It was crazy. I think we had over two thousand submissions to be a part of this thing in forty-eight hours. That was just in LA.
Kyle Hausmann-Stokes: The way that we ended the PSA was by each of the veterans what we call sounding off. They would say… “My name is Staff Sergeant Hausmann… and I support the band and military-style assault rifles and safer gun laws in this country.”
Celine Gounder: The video went online March 24, 2018… the same day as the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C.
Kyle Hausmann-Stokes: After the PSA debuted… maybe even more special to me than the view count were the comments.
Kyle Hausmann-Stokes: People would comment on the video, whether it be on Facebook or Twitter, and they would sound off, and they would say the exact same thing. So in a way, it was like this digital echo of voices. I wish we could use that in some way to show how many veterans out there feel the same way.
Celine Gounder: Of course, not all veterans support gun reform. Here’s Steven Kiernan again.
Steven Kiernan: Since the March for Our Lives, where I got involved with a couple of interviews and on social media or posting, especially with the hashtag of #Vets4GunReform, a lot of people on the pro-gun side, the pro-NRA side, they don’t really want to hear what we have to say.
Steven Kiernan: I’ve just gotten a lot of hate messages of people calling me an “oath breaker.”
Celine Gounder: That slur… oath breaker… hits Steven hard… especially when it comes from other veterans. It suggests that because he doesn’t support an absolutist view of the Second Amendment, he’s breaking his oath to protect the Constitution.
Celine Gounder: Steven sees a double standard when it comes to when and how veterans can speak up.
Steven Kiernan: Conservatives on the right, especially the NRA, has latched onto veterans as to be their spokesmen because they’re playing off the… “Support the Troops,” post-9/11 world that we live in where if you’re a vet, somehow, you can never be questioned, or anything said against you is somehow disrespecting the troops, so they use vets as a shield to guard against any criticism from outside groups.
Steven Kiernan: But that somehow doesn’t translate to the other way, where all of a sudden, and you’re a veteran, and you’re going against the conservative, right-leaning grain of most veterans, then you’ve somehow surrendered your right to any opinion or any benefit of the doubt because you served. So that’s… disappointing to deal with when you got other Marines yelling at you, calling you an oath-breaker… Not the kind of camaraderie and brothership they teach you in the military.
Celine Gounder: Veterans are not a monolith. There are many who support gun reform, and many who don’t. But for those who do support gun violence prevention, they don’t see it as an attack on the Second Amendment. They see gun safety as a continuation of their public service. Here’s Kyleanne Hunter.
Kyleanne Hunter: I come in as a gun owner and a veteran, I’m not trying to rip apart the Second Amendment, I am trying to be common-sensical about what’s going to save lives. …most importantly I bring a commitment to continue to protect Americans and to save American lives. I think being able to continue that in my civilian career is very, very important.
Celine Gounder: Pete Lucier.
Peter Lucier: I’m just really glad that I’ve had the opportunity to participate in some way because I think it’s a continuation of my service. This is another way I can give back to a country that’s given me a lot, and a lot of opportunity and a lot of benefits. I hope that I participated in keeping Americans safe when I served abroad, and I hope that what I’m doing now continues to keep Americans safe here at home. That’s it.
Celine Gounder: Like moms and students… veterans have brought new energy… and expertise… to the gun violence prevention movement. They’ve been steeped in military gun culture. It’s a culture that places tremendous emphasis on gun safety.
Celine Gounder: And yet, even among vets, there’s disagreement on gun reform… and those who do speak in favor of such reforms… often come under attack from their peers… and civilians who practice a different kind of gun culture.
Celine Gounder: In our next episode we’ll hear from yet another group that’s stepping up. Doctors and other health care providers like me. That’s next time on “In Sickness and in Health.”
Celine Gounder: “In Sickness and in Health” is brought to you by Just Human Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Zach Dyer and me. Our theme music is by Allan Vest. Additional music by The Blue Dot Sessions.
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Celine Gounder: I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This is “In Sickness and in Health.”